Vikas Dilawari, Vikas Dilawari Conservation Architects, Mumbai

Vikas Dilawari, Vikas Dilawari Conservation Architects, Mumbai

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‘All historical sites are important and if things are done well and information shared than it does do proper justice, A simple example is Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum which is relatively a modest building, which was immaculately restored bringing its richness out using gilding and many other traditional skills. Its footfall has increased several folds since then and it now plays an important cultural hub and has contributed positively in impacting the surrounding’, says Vikas Dilawari, Vikas Dilawari Conservation Architects, Mumbai in an exclusive interview with sawdust

Vikas Dilawari-min

Vikas Dilawari-min
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Vikas Dilawari, Vikas Dilawari Conservation Architects, Mumbai
photographs: Vikas Dilawari Conservation Architects

You have done, observed and studied Mumbai’s heritage architecture very closely. Do you see any specific style in the city’s architecture?

Mumbai has many styles which came in a certain period influenced by the socio political & cultural scenario. It started with Greek Revival architecture in the early and mid 19th century;  i.e. during the East India Company period like Town hall (1833), St Andrews Kirk, Christ Church (1833) etc. as it was designed by Military engineers referring pattern books, these were popular back at home in Europe and hence used here etc.

After this came the Gothic Revival when the country came under the crown (ie. post 1857) and architects started designing buildings rather military engineers. This style was again contextual and popular at home (UK), the style was chosen as it was essential to have a verandah or a skin which was seen in Mediterranean Gothic architecture to adjust to harsh local climate. The style relied on use of stone which was found in abundance and craftsmen’s issue was sorted out by starting art and architectural schools like Bombay School of Art later on called Sir JJ … It was also argued that this style was economical as compared to other style. It also depended on the likes of the Governor who occasionally endorsed particular style like Bartle Frere did for Bombay. The city is best known for it – ie CSMT (VT), BMC head office, Crawford Market, Rajabai Tower, High Court, Secretariat, PWD offices, CTO, etc.   

This was followed briefly by the Renaissance Revivalist style like Army Navy Building, Standard Chartered Bank, Institute of Science etc.

The Indo Saracenic architecture then came up by the turn of the century to express Indian (local) identity and also as political scenes were changing too in early 1900’s. The Oriental dome of the BMC head office was the starting point, the GPO, the CSMVS Museum (ie: erstwhile Prince of Wales Museum), Anjuman Islam school were some prominent examples. 

This was then followed by Art Deco which swept the city in a big way in mid 20th cent and Marine Drive, PM Road, Reclaimed areas across Oval Maidan etc. became popular. They eventually had local overtones like the buildings on PM Road which can be termed as Bombay Deco. This style lingered on for some while till early 1960’s and there after the period of particular or distinct styles died a natural death and FSI, restricted use of stone resulted in use of concrete which then became most popular and economical and the only material to build with.

Mumbai has its own style of Art Deco structures. Can you elaborate for our readers on Mumbai’s Art Deco style and steps needed to preserve them? 

As mentioned earlier, the early attempts of Art Deco were very influenced by the West; but it’s actually the later architecture done by British Indian Architects (many were professors of Sir JJ College of Architecture) and their students which makes Bombay’s art deco on the real world map. The Jinnah House for that matter is an excellent example of Oriental Art Deco. Similarly, the erstwhile US Consulate building (LINCOLN HOUSE), which was the property of Maharaja of Wankaner is another such good example. 

The buildings on PM Road which came up in 1928’s /30 is another stretch having an indianised version of Art Deco using red sand stone, Elephant motifs. And goddess Laxmi atop on the building.

To preserve them we first have to building awareness on the importance of this style. Many of these buildings are tenanted and the rents are so meagre that they don’t get looked after well. Hence some amendments are needed in Rent Control directions. Then good enabling laws and its enforcement is a must but this is unfortunately missing . 

If incentives are given like the best maintained Art Deco Building get an award then that will bring forward many more others to do so. Other incentive can be matching grants fund etc    

The common areas of the building accessible to the public should ideally retain the Art Deco character and this should be listed well in the proposed listing.

Of late, some of the architecture schools have started offering courses relating to heritage conservation. But don’t you think there is acute shortage of skilled labour who can take up the conservation jobs? Do you think skilling India should seriously consider skilling labour to do conservation jobs too?

Yes. there is a matter of concern as first and foremost the common public and builders and construction industry does not endorse conservation that much. Hence there is not much demand and the general attitude is that owners are hesitant to restore their buildings as that’s not a part of the local cultural. This needs to be changed first. 

Secondly, there are now adequate conservation architects in certain areas of the country and they know how to prepare fabric status reports, the tender etc but then the main issue is the dearth of skilled craftsman and easy availability of traditional materials as per IS standards (like lime). There are no guilds or technical institute or government recognized skilled imparting vocational centres and hence, where to get the skilled labour is always an issue. Unfortunately, there has been disconnect between traditional art and skills of past.  Its revival is very crucial if Conservation has to become a mass sustainable movement.   

You have said in the past conservation should include not just historical monuments but also lived heritage. Can you elaborate on this?

The important landmarks or monuments are well protected and are looked after by many government agencies like ASI, PWD, MCGM, Railways etc. but these stand out due to the grain i.e. residential fabric of city which off late is undergoing redevelopment and becoming tall and prominent due to free car parking, increased FSI etc. and this is altering the well-established balanced pattern of the area between the landmarks and the grain. The lived-in heritage is dynamic and progressive and not stagnant and fossilized as archaeology or preservation of monument. Hence conservation of lived in heritage should be included and be flexible enough to meet the needs but arrest the greed.

Does the UNESCO world heritage tag for a heritage site in India make a difference in its conservation/ preservation/ upkeep/ usage by common man? How does the organisation in-charge work towards keeping it upto the world heritage standards? 

The WHS (World Heritage Site) Tag is a prestigious status and makes one proud. However, this also comes with a cost and that is to maintain and look after the property in a professional manner as per international norms of heritage where the cultural significance is not diminished. The WHS has several check lists for sites to get the status and to maintain the status after that too.

The common man, politicians, bureaucrats, and architects unfortunately in our country is yet not sensitized nor are some of the organizations looking after it in complete preparedness as conservation is not a mainstream agenda of theirs . For example CSMT or VT station is a WHS since 2005, however in 2012-13  or so they had proposals to do commercial  development in the buffer zone which was against the WHS guidelines and for that reasons theywere willing to lose the WHS status too for it. However, better sense prevailed and this was then shelved.       

There are few projects in India that have successfully implemented heritage projects with involvement of the general masses, Pondicherry is a good example. But heritage is still thought as a subject for the elite. Will this situation change?

Built heritage was initially considered as an elitist activity as the elites had the time and money. However, things are changing and good PPP projects are now trend setters, like the restoration of Dr Bhau daji Lad Museum or the Aga khan Foundation’s Humuyun’s Tomb, Niazzamudin Basti and Sundar gardens, which are not elitist projects but people and community driven . Yes, in touristic places the built heritage of Pondicherry, Mattancherry forms the economics of conservation which keeps it going since tourists want that distinct nostalgic European feel and touch in these erstwhile European quarters in India. It is not the byelaws but the economics of conservation which protects these properties; So yes, the situation is changing but not on that quick scale and speed. 

Strangely, though we have concepts like smart cities , SEZ  etc, none of the governments have experimented with the Heritage City Concept.  Union Territories like  Daman, Chandigarh would be strong contenders. It would be worthwhile to study its economical impact.   

In a developing country like India, development overtakes heritage issues more often and there is a huge lack of information about heritage and its preservation. What can we as the ones interested/invested in heritage do to fill this gap? 

Awareness is the first step, taking pride is the second step and looking after is the third.  When these three are done the gap between information and preservation is reduced. The social media now plays an important role as it also helps in providing much required information instantly. It would be desirable to document the process of repairs and restoration of all publically funded buildings and to show it on media or by a live demonstration which would help in them then appreciate the pains taken to restore it and this would spread awareness too.     

With the vast history and built heritage in India, why are very few places hogging the limelight for example Taj Mahal, shore temple et al.? What can we as conservation professionals do to reach the masses and instil the importance of other built heritage sites- sites that unravel the history of common men?

All historical sites are important and if things are done well and information shared than it does do proper justice, Aclassic example is Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum which is relatively asignificant building which was immaculately restored bringing its richness out using gilding and many other traditional skills. Its footfall has increased several folds since then and it now plays an important cultural hub and has contributed positively in impacting the surrounding. So is the case with lived in heritage. Once when the run down residential fabric is restored, it gentrifies the entire area around it. Similar example is seen in cases of redundant public water fountains been made active too.  

Do you think it is necessary to spark an “activist” in architects to conserve and preserve our heritage architecture? Why majority of the people in the profession are not taking keen interest in conservation projects?

An activist spark is essential but the two roles cannot be mixed as one is professional and other is a hobby. Conservation is not popular as it does not enjoy patronage and hence it is not mainstream as yet. To conserve is less lucrative financially than to reconstruct or redevelop. Hence most professionals are not keen in it and see better future in building new highrises and in modern developments.  

In your opinion what are the measures needed to be taken to realise Mumbai’s potential for restoring its best architecture?

Mumbai needs to get its act proper since even though conservation laws have been there for more than two decades, these have not been implemented well, nor have any incentives been given by government. There are no rewards or acknowledgments for retaining the heritage. 

The traditional skills and materials are not easily available and have to be revived or sourced carefully.

Laws like Rent Control Acts need to be modified or repealed.

Ideally, a competition should be floated to extend, expand or add on to these heritage structures so as to sensitize the architects and users.  

What kind of role you envisage for private sector in conserving, preserving and maintaining heritage architecture?

Private sector certainly can play a pivotal role as it can provide the financial support to make the project viable and sustainable. It can help is spreading awareness too. It is easier to work with the Private sector as one is tied up in many bureaucratic hurdles while working with the government. Hence the best of conservation can happen with the private sector.